Note: all statistics in this post are current based on games played before November 18th, 2009; it was written prior to the Orlando Magic's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder last night.
When the Orlando Magic traded for Vince Carter this summer, they did so to add his scoring punch and late-game reliability. Coach Stan Van Gundy said as much during Carter's introductory press conference:
I think with Vince, you can give him the ball anywhere on the floor and he can isolate and create a shot either for himself or a teammate on his own. Plus, if you look at the numbers like we do all the time and I don’t think that he’s got enough credit for this, Vince has been throughout his career, one of the best fourth quarter and end-of-game guys in this league, in terms of production. He’s been a guy that has always come through down the stretch in games. I think that’s huge.
With a career scoring average of 23.5 points per game headed into the season, and coming off a season in which he averaged 20.8 points, Van Gundy's assessment was reasonable. With the Magic, Carter's averaged a career-low 17 points per game, which sounds bad until one considers he's averaging a career-low 28.9 minutes per game as well. However, he's been a solid addition so far, mostly for his off-the-charts three-point shooting percentage of 44.2%. And he's already come up big in a key situation, drilling the clinching three-pointer earlier this week against the Charlotte Bobcats.
Anecdotally, Carter has avoided driving the ball to the basket in recent seasons, preferring instead to shoot from the outside. He's thus earned a reputation for laziness, not to mention softness; this quote from an NBA scout has become a favorite among Carter detractors:
"I bet no player in the history of the league has gone to the locker room and come out again more than Vince Carter. In the history of the league."
I've found many of these accusations unfounded. After all, Vince still drives the ball to the basket authoritatively, and although he indeed makes relatively frequent visits to the locker room, he's missed only 16 games combined in the last 5 seasons before this one.
Unfortunately, this year he's playing into both stereotypes, as the data below the fold will illustrate.
|Foul-Drawing and Shot-Selection Statistics for Vince Carter, 2005/06-2009/10 NBA Seasons|
|Statistics from Basketball-Reference.com and 82games.com|
Indeed, Carter's foul-drawing rate and per-minute-adjusted free-throw attempts have declined in each of the last 4 seasons, which coincides with an increase in jump-shot attempts. There are two ways to interpret these data: he's gotten lazy, or he's adapted his game to compensate for his waning athleticism. And it's not as though he's driving less frequently because he's taken on a secondary role in the offense, as his usage rate is still quite high. In fact, among all players who have played at least 200 minutes and who have a usage rate of at least 26, only Bobby Brown averages fewer free-throw attempts per 36 minutes than Carter does.
The obvious asterisk here is that it's still early in the season, so there are fewer data points here compared to prior seasons. The fact that he's recovering from a sprained ankle suffered in the second game of the season may also explain his heavily increased reliance on the jumper; he may return to form once his ankle returns to full health. But even in the season opener, jumpers comprised 8 of his 12 shots. He went 1-of-3 inside and drew one pair of free throws, which indicates that his ankle probably isn't the only contributing factor to his increase in jump-shot attempts.
Regardless of why he's driving to the basket less often, it's clear (at least to me) that he needs to correct that tendency during Jameer Nelson's extended absence. Orlando will need to fill-in Nelson's production somehow, and Jason Williams can't do it himself; Carter and Rashard Lewis figure to see more touches with Nelson out. Carter won't continue to shoot the lights out for the whole season, so he'll need to find other ways to be effective. Earning free-throw attempts, and finishing at a better rate inside, will go a long way toward ensuring that the Magic's offense stays afloat with Nelson sidelined.